Article on Fiction Writing, first published in Writing Magazine in August, 1995 (Copyright Carol Townend)
This article has been scanned in and lightly revised, as the old floppy it was originally saved on has degraded. It's interesting to see how Hemingway's style affected the article, but I would probably write a very different version today. Anyhow, this is posted here for Ann, by which she will know my mss has at last been sent to my editor! Here's the article:
E.H. Hemingway - Clarity and Simplicity
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, Ernest Hemingway was a man of many contradictions. He wrote about universal themes: love, war, death and the nature of courage and cowardice. It is a tragic and poignant irony that in July 1961, he loaded his double barrelled shotgun, put the barrels to his forehead, and fired. Although he had been ill for some time, his death rocked the literary world.
Hemingway was an insistently literal writer. He wrote from life, working hard to get to the truth behind experience: I am trying to make, before I get through, a picture of the whole world — or as much of it as I have seen. Boiling it down always, rather than spreading it out thin. (From Selected Letters, to Mrs P. Pfeiffer 1933).
Hemingway devoted his life to improving his craft. The book Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips is a collection of Hemingway’s remarks and comments on writing, taken from his novels and private correspondence. It bears witness to his dedication, and is a goldmine of advice and inspiration for any writer. Hemingway slaved to achieve a spare writing style, paring everything down to the bone. His style has been labeled hard-boiled, masculine, tough, and a ‘flat, precise prose purged of any romanticism’.
He takes pains to tell a story straight, intending that the reader should experience the emotion evoked by a situation directly, not filtered through the perceptions of the author or one of his characters. In Death in the Afternoon he says: the greatest difficulty...was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. His development of an exact, photographic style is his solution to this problem and using it he paints vivid and convincing pictures. The opening of For Whom the Bell Tolls is deceptively simple and illustrates the clarity of Hemingway’s economical narrative prose: He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight. This is straight writing with no wasted words, and its lack of ornament empowers it.
The stark simplicity of Hemingway’s style can produce effects so strong it can be painful to read; and when used to describe a scene involving people in a flood of complicated and often paradoxical responses, it can be unbearable. Here is an excerpt from A Farewell to Arms, where the first person narrator of the book is in a dug-out that is struck by a mortar. It is dark, there is much confusion, and the narrator has been unable to help the man next to him, who has just died, screaming in agony. Then the narrator realises that he too is hurt: I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside the back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin. I wiped my hand on my shirt and another floating light came very slowly down and I looked at my leg and was very afraid...
Drawing on his experiences on the Italian front in the First World War, Hemingway conveys the horror, not by giving a detailed account of the emotions of the narrator and how he felt in the aftermath of the explosion; but by writing exactly what happened in plain, simple English. By writing objectively Hemingway evokes in the reader the feelings that the wounded narrator of the scene would have felt. This ‘show, don’t tell’ technique pushed to its limits is what gives Hemingway’s writing its potency.
In Ernest Hemingway on Writing he sums up his writing philosophy: You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not to just depict life — or criticise it — but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides — three dimensions and if possible four that you can write the way I want to. As this excerpt demonstrates, it is the contrast between Hemingway’s flat, unemotional style, and the aftermath of the explosion that points up the blood and gore. Readers are made to experience something of the terror and helplessness that the narrator felt without the words blood and gore even being used. However, despite the apparent plainness of the language, this passage is not as simple as it looks. Repetition and rhyme help pile on the horror. Throughout the text in this and the preceding paragraph (which can be found in Chapter 9) the words knee and legs sound like a drum before the narrator realises how badly he is wounded. The repetitious use of these words, and also of dead and head, foreshadow what is to come. My legs felt warm and wet, and my shoes were wet and warm inside: here Hemingway uses repetition, rhythm and alliteration, to convey the fact that the narrator was bleeding profusely. Though Hemingway professed a dislike of simile and metaphor, he was not above using them. The simile like the weights on a doll’s eyes is simple but communicates in many ways at once — the feeling in his head, his wooden, unreal movements...
Here is another example of effective use of simile and metaphor taken from For Whom the Bell Tolls. Rafael, the gipsy is talking about Pilar: she has a tongue that scalds and bites like a bull whip. With this tongue she takes the hide from anyone. In strips.
It is interesting to consider whether Hemingway’s terse style would be as effective if he used it to depict a sedate tea party in his home town of Oak Park, Illinois. It needs the contrast between the plain words he employs and the drama of a life and death situation to be most effective. This is not to say that Hemingway cannot write with great subtlety and sensitivity about rare and bizarre happenings. For example in A Farewell to Arms, when the mortar explodes, he describes an out of body experience: then there was a flash, as a blast- furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself and I knew that I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back. Note how the insistent repetitious rhythm out and out and out somehow conveys the weird nature of the sensation.
Hemingway’s astute use of the dramatic contrast as a technique for making his writing live is apparent in his choice of themes as well as in his prose style. The love stories in both A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls are rendered more poignant and tender by the fact that both take place with the spectre of death and sudden separation looming over them. Here is a section, again from A Farewell to Arms, when the wounded narrator is in hospital and Catherine Barkley comes to nurse him. They have not seen each other for some time: ‘Hello,' I said. When I saw her I was in love with her. Everything turned over inside of me. She looked towards the door, saw there was no one, then she sat on the side of the bed and leaned over and kissed me. I pulled her down and kissed her and felt her heart beating. ‘You’re sweet,’ I said. ‘Weren’t you wonderful to come here?’ ‘It wasn’t very hard. It may be hard to stay.’
And in For Whom the Bell Tolls lovers Robert and Maria are overshadowed always by the threat of Robert’s death. Pilar, who is clairvoyant and can read palms, has seen death in Robert’s hand. here, Pilar offers to leave Robert alone with Maria: Robert Jordan said nothing. Then he said, ‘That is not necessary.’ ‘Yes, man. It is necessary. There is not much time.’
‘Did you see that in the hand?’ he asked. ‘No. Do not remember that nonsense of the hand.’
Hemingway researched his backgrounds thoroughly, but his findings did not all work their way into the text. He developed a theory of omission, whereby what was known by the writer, but not stated, nevertheless added verisimilitude to the writing: If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writers is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one- eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. (Death in the Afternoon). Hemingway was a perfectionist. In order to refine his work — ‘to boil it down’ — he wrote and rewrote, cutting drastically. It is said he cut 100,000 words of To Have and Have Not. Hemingway himself can have the last word. In a Paris Review interview he was asked how much rewriting he did: Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied with it. Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you? Hemingway: Getting the words right.
Writing Magazine Article August 1995 (copyright Carol Townend)